Have You Seen This Car? Ollie Olsen’s Will-A-Meaner Remains A Mystery.

March 23, 2016

Ollie Olsen’s A/Gas Willys prepares for a run in 1962. Olsen leans in the door, giving last minute advice to driver Bob “Rapid” Dwyer. Car retains stock Willys front end and trim with unique black-copper-black paint scheme. 

Story by Jim Hill

For more than 40 years one of drag racing’s most famous 1940 Willys Gassers has been missing, its whereabouts unknown. The black-over-copper, ’40 Willys once an iconic 60’s A/Gasser built and campaigned by Ollie Olsen has since become a ghost ship.

Ollie Olsen owned an auto service and engine building shop in West Palm Beach, Florida. Ollie’s place produced several of the Southeast’s fastest and quickest drag cars, and later, offshore racing boats. Foremost was Ollie’s own “Will-A-Meaner”, ’40 Willys coupe, an A/Gas racer built and maintained by Ollie.

The pristine Willys would achieve a cult-like following among Gasser fans beginning in late 1960 and ending sometime in the mid 1970’s, when ET Bracket racing shoved aside class competition.

In its last racing form, Ollie’s ’40 Willys ran in B/Altered class, and Competition Eliminator. As a B/Altered the Willys was capable of high eight’s at 150 mph, using a 426 Hemi with Hilborn fuel injection and a high-stall, TorqueFlite.

In the 50’s and 60’s drag racers often added a catchy name to their cars. Many became iconic brands, such as Bill Jenkins’ “Grumpy’s Toy”. “Will-A-Meaner” actually followed his previous A/Gasser, a Chevy powered Henry-J he named “Henrietta”, also well known as an A/Gas terror.

Ollie sold Henrietta and was soon at work on the new 1940 Willys coupe he planned for A/Gas racing. It too was built around a Chevy 283-based engine. Bored to 4.00”, its 283 block carried a journal-welded, 3.50” stroke crankshaft, for a total of 352 CID. This popular engine displacement required a carefully selected 283 Chevy block, with no casting core-shift, allowing a .125” overbore to bring the standard 283’s 3.875” bore to 4.00”. 283 cranks were made from forged steel, and a crankshaft specialty shop, with careful arc welding and offset grinding, could extend the journal throw distance from 3.00” to 3.50”.

Ollie’s new Willys was ready for racing in late 1960, and it housed the 352 CID Chevy out of Henrietta. Olsen’s choice of induction systems was the proven Hilborn mechanical, port-injection offered by Indy racing’s famous fuel systems guru, Stuart Hilborn. This was fed by a high-speed Hilborn pump and injector nozzles and topped with bell-mouthed 6” injector velocity stacks. A Vertex magneto ignition fired the Autolite spark plugs.

Ollie Olsen’s A/G Willys at speed. Note very clean profile, narrowed rear axle kept rear slicks tucked in and out of the wind. Olsen and driver Bob Dwyer won A/G class at the ’61 NHRA Nationals.

Ollie was a friend and customer of Harvey Crane. Harvey provided Ollie with a roller camshaft and complete valve train, and a set of fully ported heads. The headers were homebuilt items with a large collector.

A modified Borg-Warner T-10 four-speed manual transmission kept engine speed in the desired torque band. The close-ratio T-10, carried a 2.20:1 first gear.

Ollie was largely self-taught, but his intuitive curiosity and strong knowledge of engine dynamics and physics left him with a keen sense of what was required to create maximum power from a small-block Chevy. Ollie’s latest Chevy for the Willys was engineered and assembled to showcase all that knowledge.

The car itself was another example of just how talented and advanced Olsen was. Ollie’s Henry-J served as a test bed for all the things he wanted to experiment with. The Willys incorporated all those improvements and a bagful of other tricks.

In the early 60’s drag tire technology was largely an untapped resource. Many drag racers still relied on recapped slicks. Ollie’s Willys would have a rear suspension engineered to be adjustable for widely variable track surfaces. The rear suspension used adjustable links to preload the rear tires.

Ollie was aero-conscious at a time when terms such as “frontal area”, “drag coefficient” and “downforce” were unknown to most drag racers. Early 60’s Gassers were struggling with rear-wheel traction issues. That led to the “High & Mighty” stance, with the front end and often the entire car raised, to increase weight transfer but creating a very unstable race car, especially at 100+ mph.

Olsen’s Willys was low, but especially in the front-end. He wanted it aerodynamically clean, with minimum drag and top-end stability for targeted 130+ mph speeds. The Chevy rear axle housing was narrowed, tucking the rear slicks inside the rear fenders, cleanly out of the wind.

Ollie Olsen (left) and driver Bob Dwyer share trophy for Little Eliminator after 1963 win at Florida State Championships. The duo won many Southeast events and A/G class at 1961 Nationals.

The hood scoop allowed sufficient incoming air with minimum drag. It was skillfully blended into the Willys hood, matching the factory sheetmetal and complimenting the factory steel front cap.

For the front Olsen used chromed steel factory wheels. Out back he chose American magnesium five-spoke wheels mounting the latest compound M&H Racemaster tires.

The interior was sparse. A steel tube roll bar offered safety along with a pair of lightweight bucket seats and sheet aluminum interior. A Sun tachometer and Stewart-Warner gauges, water temp, and oil pressure were necessary. In keeping with class rules, the stock Willys headlights and taillights were retained, and operative. A single, minimally small windshield wiper remained on the driver’s side, in keeping with the absurdity of “street-legal equipment” Gas class rules.

Hand formed aluminum front-end allowed more weight on rear wheels. Twin scoops fed Hilborn injected, 352 CID small-block Chevy. This is Valkaria Dragway, near Melbourne, Florida.

Ollie’s new Willys was not lacking in aesthetics. The car was finished in a unique, two-tone paint scheme, black over copper over black lacquer, a classic touch usually seen on Auburn and Duesenberg 1930’s autos. The car was an exercise in understatement, a show-quality sleeper.

The new car’s first race outing would be at the airfield turned drag strip known as Amelia Earhart Field, on Lejune Road, in Hialeah. This was the 1920’s site of the first commercial airport in Miami, preceding MIA. Amelia Earhart Field’s use as a drag strip was the work of Ernie Schorb, 2005 East Coast Drag Times Hall of Fame member and the South Florida Timing Association.

After an easy check-out run Ollie returned and began the car’s first full pass. At half-track the car got loose, then swerved and rolled over. Olsen was shaken but unharmed. The fresh, new Will-A-Meaner was scuffed, bruised and dented, but its sturdy construction saved it from terminal damage. It was repairable, and would be refurbished and returned in a few weeks.

A short time later he designated Bob “Rapid” Dwyer as his driver and over the next several years the Olsen-Dwyer team racked up an impressive record in A/Gas and Little Eliminator racing.

After a successful 1961 NHRA Division II season Olsen filed his entry for the 1961 NHRA Nationals, at the brand new Indianapolis Raceway Park, just west of the Indy 500 track.

Ollie’s Willys turned heads by capturing the Nationals A/Gas class trophy over Kuhl & Heine’s ’37 Willys coupe, from Berkeley, MO. The winning run was clocked at 11.68 seconds, 116.27 mph in a shut-off. Not surprisingly, Will-A-Meaner was the fastest and quickest A/Gasser in the field.

Ollie’s ’60 Chevy El-Camino was push car, painted like the Willys, in black-copper-black lacquer. After custom built aluminum front-end was installed it was painted and 60’s popular racing stripes added.

By the mid 1960’s the winds of change were blowing hard. Small-block Chevy power had been challenged by the mega-powerful new ’64 Chrysler 426 Race Hemi. The tide was rising and the only way to combat the Hemi was to get one.

Ollie’s 426 Hemi complimented its 10% engine set-back, helpful with the increased weight of the Hemi. A fiberglass front-end replaced the stock steel and a TorqueFlite automatic transmission replaced the trusty T-10 four-speed.

Although cloaked in a 1940 Willys body, Olsen’s car was more like a contemporary A/Factory Experimental. The FX technology was wisely applied and the Willys was again the terror of A/Gas. By “Hemi Time”, driver Bob Dwyer had moved on, and “Nick the Greek” Zapetis took over.

Still running in A/Gas, the now 426 Hemi powered Will-A-Meaner leaves hard at Miami Dragway, 1966. A/FX style injection velcoity stacks protrude from hood area.

Ever resourceful, Ollie updated the Willys to keep pace. The Chevy rear axle was replaced by a much stronger Franklin quick-change. A sleek, hand crafted, aluminum one-piece front end incorporated a pair of hood scoops mounted on the Willys-shaped hood side panels. The stylish one-piece front-end frequently ran afoul of NHRA’s tech inspectors, so Ollie decided to jump to B/Altered and run in Comp Eliminator. Except for the disputed front-end the car remained a legal A/Gasser.

The rumor that Olsen also concealed a small nitrous-oxide system in the swoopy hood has persisted to this day. The reality is that his clever engine building and tuning plus personal pride and ego would never allow it.

As a B/Altered, Ollie’s Willys often ended up running in a combined Comp Eliminator/Street Eliminator when there weren’t enough cars to stage both separately. It was capable of running several tenths under the NHRA B/A National Record, which was used for handicapping elimination rounds.

By the early 1970’s most South Florida tracks had abandoned class racing for ET Brackets. Class racers could either convert to bracket racing, or go home. Olsen chose the latter, and the Willys was parked. Ollie gained a new following among offshore boat racers and his engines powered many race winners in Florida and the Caribbean.

Ollie Olsen passed away several years later. Nearly four decades have passed, leaving the fate of the Will-A-Meaner obscured by the years. The car has never resurfaced, although a “near-miss” occurred in the early 1980’s.

A pair of brothers visiting the Palm Beach area from Iowa, brought with them their ’40 Willys coupe. They planned to go racing while they worked construction in the booming building industry. They turned up at a Super Chevy Sunday event in the early 80’s, running ET Brackets at Palm Beach International Raceway, by then renamed Moroso Motorsports Park. Ironically, their car was painted in almost the identically unique copper and black scheme as Olsen’s Willys. A fiberglass front cap and big-block Chevy were there instead of the aluminum front-end and Hemi.

Classic Gasser match-up between Ron Hassel’s B/G Chevy powered Anglia (left) and Nick Zapetis, in Ollie Olsen’s 426 Hemi Willys A/Gasser. Both Hassel and Olsen were former class winners at the NHRA Nationals. Hassel 1964 and 1966, Olsen in 1961.

After questioning, it was discovered their car had been built by them, entirely in Iowa. The paint colors and design came after a suggestion of an Iowa local. Had he at one time seen Ollie’s Willys and remembered its unique design? That was never determined. The brothers later returned to Iowa, taking their “Ollie-Clone” Willys.

To this day Ollie Olsen’s 1940 Willys remains mysteriously missing. All trails and leads to the famous car have been a dead-end. Does the Will-A-Meaner remain in South Florida, quietly lurking as the ultimate “garage find”?